Man Without Qualities

Friday, November 14, 2003

The Economist And Herr Doktorprofessor

This curious Economist item on Paul Krugman and his critics is not exactly a win for either side.

The main effect of this item is to raise the question of whether the Economist has really closely read all those Paul Krugman columns. One gets the impression that whoever wrote this unattributed Economist item dearly values her own low blood pressure more than the dissonance of intellectually honest appraisal - and it's difficult to imagine such a person spending a long period closeted in close reading with a pile of Paul Krugman's screeds. The item doesn't seem to engage the issues Herr Doktorprofessor's style raises.

For example, Herr Doktorprofessor's recurring, unsubstantiated suggestions of conspiracies - usually conspiracies involving George Bush - is entirely unmentioned. But by itself that propensity should cause one's eyebrows to be raised by the Economist's reference to Mr Krugman's perfectly respectable personal political beliefs. It is not just that Paul Krugman has a growing tendency to attribute all the world's ills to George Bush - Herr Doktorprofessor repeatedly presents Mr. Bush in a far more sinister light than that - conjuring the trappings, wheels and spokes of full blown evil enterprises with Mr. Bush at the helm. Many of Mr Krugman's personal political beliefs he expresses in his columns are anything but perfectly respectable - some of them border on the paranoid. Perhaps the author of this article needs more than what she terms a glance through his past columns to understand what Herr Doktorprofessor has been about. But even his Times colleague David Brooks has expressed his concern about Herr Doktorprofessor's often angry, even hateful, and far from "perfectly respectable," opinions. And is it "perfectly respectable" to hurl against the President of the United States coded charges of anti-Semitism - as Herr Doktorprofessor has done, even while he attempts to "explain away" the anti-Semitism in the Mahathir Mohamad speech - as the ADL correctly points out? Is that what passes for "perfectly respectable" at the Economist today?

Herr Doktorprofessor's loathing for Mr. Bush has also led him to deny - up to the very eve of the recent massive acceleration in the economic recovery - the very existence of such a recovery (performance that has led Felix Rohatyn, no Republican partisan, to exclaim: "I rejoice in the spectacular performance of our economy at this time."). His venomous, absolutist and completely wrong-headed writing has provided hilarious fodder for a contest to identify Herr Doktorprofessor's most preposterously wrongheaded prediction. My favorite is perhaps his simple but heartfelt observation There is very little evidence in the data for a strong recovery ready to break out, which Herr Doktorprofessor published at the end of July. But there are so many others to choose from. A certain air of the unreal - even the surreal - is created by the Economist's failure to even mention Herr Doktorprofessor's recent spectacular and obvious failures in seeing the acceleration coming - failures brought on by his even more spectacular and obvious loathing of the President, which clearly blinds him to much of what is most important in his own profession. A certain hallucinatory atmosphere is also left by the Economist's omission of any mention of Herr Doktorprofessor's wildly intemperate criticisms of Alan Greenspan: It's probably wishful thinking, but some people hope that the old Alan Greenspan - the man we used to respect - will make a return appearance next week. .... Mr. Greenspan must know that many people, whatever they say in public, now regard him as a partisan hack. This is the kind of thing the Economist expects from a gifted writer and economist?

There is also a certain unpleasant flavor of the self serving and self-congratulatory in this Economist item. For example, the writer (whoever she may be) opines of Herr Doktorprofessor's critics: The more reasonable ones allow that he is a gifted writer and economist, but also argue that these days his relentless partisanship is getting in the way of his argument. And, sure enough, that is exactly the approach taken by the Economist writer! Who would have thought it?

The criticism of some of Herr Doktorprofessor's more peculiar economics arguments is also on the coy side:

Even his economics is sometimes stretched. A recent piece accused conservatives of embracing the "lump of labour fallacy", the mistaken claim that there is a fixed quantity of work which governments must strive to allocate equitably. In fact, the paper he cited did not commit the lump of labour fallacy. He used game theory to argue that, by criticising North Korea but not attacking it, and then going after Iraq instead, Mr Bush is "probably" encouraging North Korea to become a more dangerous nuclear power. This probably did not convince most game theorists.

Is it too much to ask why these criticisms are valid, but not others? Herr Doktorprofessor has been almost unhinged in the intensity of his criticisms of the Bush tax cuts - to the point of stating that anyone who supports them is a "liar" - but there is no mention in this Economist item that Gary S. Becker, Edward P. Lazear and Kevin M. Murphy beg to differ - although not by name. Professor Becker is, of course, a winner of a Nobel Prize in economics, and Professor Murphy is a winner of the John Bates Clark Medal of the American Economic Association, which is also Paul Krugman's greatest credential. Has Herr Doktorprofessor confessed that In fact, the paper he cited did not commit the lump of labour fallacy? If not, why and how did this opinion of the writer become a "fact" - where the opinions of Professors Becker, Murphy and Lazear don't warrant even a mention? Perhaps the author considers those three to be among those who spend an inordinate amount of time quibbling about minor semantic points, or trivial differences in statistics? The Economist's author might claim that space was limited, but the item rambles considerably (the unsupportable speculation about a possible Nobel at the end, for example, is almost a non sequitur), so room could have been made for a bit of substance. Is it that the author didn't want to expose herself by exposing her substantive economics and game theory considerations? It is also striking that these recognized errors are trivial compared to Herr Doktorprofessor's whopping errors in predicting the current recovery and in asserting that the destructiveness of the Bush tax cuts is clear and absolute economic fact.

And where ever did the Economist get the idea that politicians don't act to advance their policies and beliefs in the period after they expect to leave power, as in this guileless passage:

After Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister of Malaysia, recently gave an anti-Semitic speech, Mr Krugman argued that the Bush administration's ham-fisted foreign policy had forced Dr Mahathir to make the remarks in order to shore up domestic political support—most unlikely, given that he was about to step down.

Contrary to the Economist's naive suggestion, politicans frequently act to advance their agendas and policies in the period after they step down - in exactly the manner the Economist describes here as "most unlikely." Does the Economist remember the raft of legislation and appointments just perpetrated by Gray Davis after his recall? How about Bill Clinton's infamous last-minute pardons? Is the Economist aware that Presidents value their right to appoint Supreme Court Justices exactly because they often remain on the bench for decades after the President is gone from office - or dead?

There is lots wrong with Herr Doktorprofessor's treatment of Mahathir Mohamad's speech, much of it identified by those he terms his “stalkers” - who the Economist seems eager to join him in largely dismissing. But placing this kind of emphasis on the mere fact that Mahathir Mohamad was about to step down when he made that dreadful speech - while ignoring other criticisms, including Herr Doktorprofessor's own prior, undisclosed involvement with Mahathir Mohamad - is so superficial as to make the term "superficial" seem a euphemism.

Strange, it is. All of it - this Economist item. Passing strange.

UPDATE: Insults Unpunished opines: "Musil seems to be offended that Krugman is still breathing."

No, no, no, no. no!

I would never wish harm upon Paul Krugman. Paul Krugman is one of the nation's greatest naturally occurring sources of pure hilarious baloney! The man is a national treasure! He is to be cherished in the manner we have long cherished Abbot & Costello, Bob Hope, Woody Allen and others of like stripe. They are truly his intellectual brothers.

Not a drop of anger or hate is to be poured upon his gnomishly handsome visage! May he live long and prosper!

Just keep him away from economic policy, for God's sake.

Steve Antler suggests that I'm jealous of Herr Doktorprofessor. And that is so true. I have always wanted to be an accomplished comedy writer. I feel like Salieri to Herr Doktorprofessor's Mozart! How does he accomplish his uproarious, unreal set pieces so naturally ... without apparent effort? Damn him!

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